Vashon landscaping business owner convicted in human trafficking case

Jurors deliberated less than two full days before convicting Jesus Ruiz-Hernandez

Vashon Island landscaping business owner Jesus Ruiz-Hernandez was convicted on Jan. 23 of crimes related to human trafficking, forced labor and money laundering, following weeks of trial and testimony from his employees and from the man himself.

Jurors deliberated less than two full days before convicting Ruiz-Hernandez, 45, in the U.S. District Court in Seattle. Ruiz-Hernandez is set for sentencing on the morning of April 30.

Accused of a scheme to bring undocumented immigrants — seven in total — to the U.S., where he would exploit their uncertain legal status in the country to underpay them at his business Brothers Landscaping, Ruiz now faces the possibility of years in prison.

Arguments in court

In court documents, testimony and closing arguments, prosecutors portrayed Ruiz-Hernandez as a human trafficker who lured immigrants from his hometown of Vista Hermosa in Mexico by hiring “coyotes,” or human smugglers, to bring them across the border. He would then meet the victims in the U.S. and bring them to Vashon.

Over several years, promising seven undocumented immigrants well-paying jobs on the island, Ruiz-Hernandez instead trapped them in debt by withholding pay, overcharging them for rent and food at properties he owned or leased on the island, and requiring them to pay him back over time for their coyote fees, prosecutors said — often not accurately reducing the debt for those fees for the hours they worked.

“For years Ruiz-Hernandez ensured a steady pipeline of workers for his landscaping business,” prosecutors said, “(and) … he used their undocumented status and inability to speak English to prey on them.”

That exploitation, prosecutors said, funded a “lavish lifestyle” for himself and his family.

“The company did perform legitimate landscaping business,” lead prosecutor Kate Crisham told the jury during closing arguments. “But it was also used to generate illegal proceeds from the labor of each of the seven victims in this case. Those illegal proceeds were then commingled with legitimate ones.”

Ruiz-Hernandez and some of his family members also kept the victims under their thumb, attorneys argued, by convincing them to relinquish their parental rights or pieces of property to him and his family as collateral. He also disallowed victims from taking other jobs, prosecutors said.

One victim, prosecutors said, didn’t want to work at his company “but felt she had no choice.” When he finally let her take another job on the island, prosecutors said, he still required her to turn her paychecks over to a family member who also worked there — and who then cashed them on behalf of Ruiz-Hernandez.

Most disturbingly, prosecutors said, Ruiz-Hernandez sexually assaulted that victim on multiple occasions and would become violent toward her when she told him no. A culture of fear, emotional and physical abuse and isolation kept the victim, who could not speak English, from seeking help. And when she did leave, prosecutors said, Ruiz-Hernandez and his family members harassed her in public on Vashon, pressuring her to return to his control.

“Ruiz-Hernandez often bragged to (the victim) that he knew everyone on Vashon and insinuated that no one would hire her or rent an apartment to her without his approval,” prosecutors wrote in a case brief.

Jurors found that his forced labor against that victim involved aggravated sexual abuse.

Ruiz-Hernandez committed money laundering, U.S. attorneys argued, in part by sending money to Mexico to pay for coyote services, furthering the trafficking scheme. He listed family members on corporate and financial records, and at times had Brother’s Landscaping employees wire the money to Mexican recipients, including for the purpose of coyote payments and aiding Ruiz Hernandez’ family back home — in effect, prosecutors said, shielding and concealing Ruiz-Hernandez.

In addition to his convictions, the jury further found that Ruiz-Hernandez’ properties were bought with the laundered money and thus should be forfeited to the government.

After Ruiz Hernandez’s company, Brother’s Landscaping administratively dissolved, he formed a similar company — Brother Landscape Vashon — listing a family member as its governor.

At trial, Ruiz-Hernandez said the victims in the case — his employees — were treated fairly.

“They could come and go as they pleased,” he said through the aid of an interpreter.

He wired money to Mexico for reasons including paying hospital bills for family members who became sick, Ruiz-Hernandez said. And he denied ordering others to send transactions for him under their names.

Ruiz-Hernandez’s defense attorney, Gregory Hoover, painted a different picture of Ruiz-Hernandez than prosecutors: A simple, hardworking and enterprising man, a resident of the island for nearly three decades, who sought to help his family and friends thrive in the U.S. by giving them jobs at his business — which also let them send money back to Mexico to support their families.

Ruiz-Hernandez wasn’t the one personally bringing people over the border, Hoover pointed out during closing arguments: “He knows what’s going on. He knows where they’re at, but that doesn’t mean he’s the one assisting them to come across.”

The victims in the case, Hoover argued, were free to come and go as they pleased, communicate with their families back home or friends on the island, and lived or worked at Ruiz-Hernandez’s properties or his businesses only as long as they wanted. They weren’t concealed, trafficked, harbored or forced, he said, showing the jury pictures taken of the victims out and about on Vashon.

“There was no force, or threat of force, or physical restraint,” Hoover said. “… This is not a cheap employer trying to rip off employees. This is Jesus, helping his friends and sharing his wealth with them.”

Though his tactics in business were “unorthodox,” Hoover said, Ruiz-Hernandez ran a successful business that was a “testament” to the trust workers had for him: “They weren’t working for free for him. They were paid above the minimum wage, and paid timely — whenever he had the money to do it.”

And the victims, the defense attorney argued, had reason to testify against Ruiz-Hernandez because the U.S. granted them immigration benefits for testifying.

“It’s not illegal to send money to Mexico,” Hoover said, rejecting the charges of money laundering. “It happens all the time.”

Ruiz-Hernandez was innocent of sexual assault against one victim, Hoover said, arguing that Ruiz-Hernandez saw her as someone akin to a platonic family member, had no sexual relationship with her, and was already dating someone else.

“My client testified that he’s not attracted to her at all,” Hoover said. “… Why would Jesus have sex with (the victim) when he’s already sharing a bed with (someone else), who is a prettier woman?”

He also denied that Ruiz-Hernandez’s family stole checks from the victim, and said that the family member instead helped her cash the check and then gave the victim the money.

In a rebuttal, Crisham, the prosecutor, argued that Ruiz-Hernandez’s reputation as an upstanding member of the community was a façade, built through his positive relationships with Brothers Landscaping customers.

“His people skills were with the customers,” Crisham said. “He kissed up to them, and they would talk about how great Jesus and his guys were.”

Keeping the victims in the U.S. on a stable immigration status during the case aids law enforcement in investigating the case, Crisham said.

And Crisham expressed bewilderment at the idea that Ruiz-Hernandez would not assault a woman because he was already dating someone he found more attractive.

“The insinuation that the defendant did not rape (the victim) because she was not attractive enough — I’m not quite sure how to respond to that,” Crisham said. “But what I do know is that (the victim) never said that she has a ‘sexual relationship’ with (Ruiz-Hernandez.) She said the defendant raped her.”

Arrest, conviction, and what’s next

Ruiz-Hernandez was arrested and released after an indictment in November 2022, and arrested again on new charges related to human and labor trafficking on March 30, 2023, after a dramatic early-morning law-enforcement raid on his Maury Island home and another nearby property.

Prosecutors argued that even after being indicted in November, he continued underpaying undocumented employees, and following his March arrest, he was determined a safety or flight risk and ordered held in jail while awaiting trial.

Requests by his attorneys — supported by multiple letters of support from his friends and island customers — to let him leave jail and await trial on electronic home monitoring were refused.

Jurors ultimately convicted Ruiz-Hernandez of 21 out of the 22 charges he faced.

Ruiz-Hernandez was found guilty on two charges of forced labor; three charges of transporting an alien; seven charges of harboring an alien; and three counts of bringing an alien to the U.S. for financial gain. He was also found guilty of one count of money laundering conspiracy; two counts of concealment of money laundering; and three counts of international promotion of money laundering.

The jury could not come to a decision on Count 9, which accused Ruiz-Hernandez of transporting one of the victims, and the U.S. dropped a 23rd charge against Ruiz-Hernandez for unlawful possession of ammunition.

“While there is evidence (other victims) were exploited, there is nothing in the record that would identify those individuals,” Department of Justice spokesperson Emily Langlie said in an email following the conviction.

None of Ruiz-Hernandez’ other family members have been charged with a crime related to the case, Langlie said, and it will be up to the victims to apply for visas to remain in the U.S. or achieve legal status here.

Meanwhile, two of Ruiz-Hernandez’s properties will be forfeited to the government — one located on Cemetery Road and the other on SW 240th Street. The US Marshal Service will handle that process, Langlie said.

Following the conviction, Ruiz-Hernandez filed a request for acquittal or a new trial on count nine, and on a particular aggravating circumstance of count 10; the jury was “hung” on both counts, meaning they could not agree on a verdict.